The Madder the Boy, the Sadder the Song

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January 7, 2014 by NowhereButPop

by Andrew Doscas

“Blood Sugar Sex Magik?  That sounds like a diabetic love song.”

            -Mike Watt.

“The madder the boy, the sadder the song, it’s a wicked fate, but the sick get strong”

            -“Quixoticelixir”, Red Hot Chili Peppers.

The best songs, as with really the best of anything, are ones that have meaning, a reason to exist.  For the Red Hot Chili Peppers, some of their best songs are ballads, and it’s because we all know that their ballads have meaning to them.  Their ballads aren’t as superfluous or insipid as some of their either more routine tropes, because for the band to take a break from writing those kinds of fast paced and sexual songs, they must feel as though they had something meaningful to say.  They aren’t like Paul McCartney or Elton John who just write cheap love songs that more often than not don’t owe their gestation to any real or personal experiences.

Some of the Chili Pepper’s best and most beloved songs are ballads, “Under the Bridge”, “Scar Tissue”, “Snow”, “I Could Die for You”, etc.  All of these songs have a reason to be, and from that reason comes a more emotive and personal endeavor that shows a different side of the band that they refused to show for the first eight years of their existence.  It wasn’t until their fifth album Blood Sugar Sex Magik, in 1991, that the band felt comfortable and mature enough to write songs of a softer nature, that don’t involve partying on someone’s pussy or freebasing with George Clinton.

Blood Sugar Sex Magik has three ballads on it, and if not for time constraints would have had a fourth (“Soul to Squeeze”), but within those three ballads, they encapsulate three themes most prevalent in ballads.  “Under the Bridge” deals with feelings of loneliness and isolation, “I Could Have Lied” deals will rejections and being hurt by someone, and “Breaking the Girl” inverts the idea of being hurt by presenting a situation where it’s the singer who hurt this girl, and how he too has become a victim of his own crime.  All three of these songs owe their existence to real life experiences, and as a result, the true secret success of the album is the strength of its ballads.

Under the Bridge” has become one of the band’s signature song, partly due to longevity, but also because of the personal nature of the song.  Largely based upon the feelings of depression and loneliness that frontman Anthony Kiedis harbored during his days as a drug addict, it’s this song that serves as the soul of the album.  The reason why it resonated so well with everyone in America is that we can understand, and more importantly, sympathize with what he was feeling.  You don’t have to be addicted to heroin to understand what it feels like to be alone, or to feel like you don’t have a friend in the world.  And at the crux of it, that’s what the song is really about, feeling as if you don’t have a partner.

When you look at the structure of “Under the Bridge” it’s a song that seemingly goes against everything we thought we knew about the band at the time.  John Frusicante’s guitar riff is a soothing melancholia that pacifies the listener into a trance, while Kiedis voice rolls over it like a soft wave rocking back and forth along the shoreline.  Standing in direct contrast to the fast paced and in your face structure of pretty much all of their previous songs, “Under the Bridge” adheres to the Stairway Paradigm, as it is a song that is in constant ascension.  The song escalates itself into a climax that’s a mix of regret, shame, and sadness, backed up by an angelic choir.  Even though it seems to have the essential ingredients of a mainstream hit, it’s the fact that the song was borne from real life, and real emotion that catapulted it into being the biggest hit single of their career.

Even though “Under the Bridge” was the first ballad released as a single, it actually wasn’t the first ballad they had written, nor that listeners first heard on the album.  Both of those honors go to “Breaking the Girl”, the album’s third track, which was released as the album’s fourth single.  While the discussion of what exactly the lyrics pertain to ranges from the introspective (questioning the deterioration of the relationship), to the self-reflective (lamentation over driving her away), to the crude (taking a girl’s virginity).  I’m just going to assume that by 1991 they wouldn’t entitle a ballad “Breaking the Girl” and have it be about deflowering someone.  Judging from lyrics like “The twilight of love had arrived” and “Twisting and turning, your feelings are burning, you’re breaking the girl” it just seems like the singer was shitty to this woman, she left him, and now he’s upset and angry with himself.

“Breaking the Girl” was the first ballad Kiedis had written about his own personal relationships as it was one that was plagued from the very beginning.  From certain lines of the song like “Think you so clever, but now you must sever, you’re breaking the girl”, it seems like he hurt her in some way, and now he has to sever those feelings that he once had for her.  Whatever he did, it made her leave as she was hurt by him, and now he’s left just as emotionally broken as he had not anticipated the ramifications of his own actions.  Depending on interpretation, it’s interesting that Kiedis, a guy who on previous albums rapped about his sexual prowess and potency, would choose to write a ballad, let alone make it the first ballad on the album, about him fucking up.  Throw in the objective and almost prophetic falsetto of John Frusciante constantly reiterating “She meant you no harm”, it’s difficult to contextualize the song in any way other than the singer doing something shitty to this woman he has feelings for.  Incidentally enough, whatever his crime was, he winds up a victim of his own machinations.

Following “Breaking the Girl” a mere three tracks later is “I Could Have Lied”, the only ballad on Blood Sugar Sex Magik not released as a single.  Being the softest ballad on the album, it’s also the most sensitive as it lacks the muted aggression of “Breaking the Girl” and the anthemic charisma of “Under the Bridge”.  But it’s its innate sensitivity that distinguishes “I Could Have Lied” from its sister ballads and prevents any of the three from every encroaching on one another.  What makes it different from “Breaking the Girl” is that instead of hurting someone else, it is Kiedis who is now the victim of love, more specifically an unrequited love.  Lines such as “There must be something in the way I feel that she don’t want me to feel” and “I could never change just what I feel” indicate that this woman didn’t share his feelings and as a result, Kiedis would have been better off had he simply lied about his feelings for her, as he would have been spared the grief and heartache that such a rejection brings with it.

What many people don’t know is that “I Could Have Lied” was written about Sinead O’ Connor, as Anthony Kiedis was engaged in a tryst with her.  As he began to develop feelings for her, she left a note telling him never to try and contact her again despite saying why.  From the ashes of that failed relationship sprang up, what is possibly their softest song.  And the reason why it worked is that we had never seen that side of the band before, and it was too sensitive and too heartfelt to be anything but real.  Such soul shattering songs wouldn’t be written without at least a shred of sincerity, and in 1991 sincerity was something that the Chili Peppers were just delving into.

The most interesting thing about “I Could Have Lied” and really most other ballads by the Red Hot Chili Peppers is that, just as in “Breaking the Girl” Kiedis is blaming himself.  He blames himself when he pushes one woman away, and he blames himself again for another woman leaving him without reason.  In the case of “Breaking the Girl”, he’s suffering because he did something to make her leave, but in “I Could Have Lied” she rejected him and yet he still faults himself for his pain as he did in the previous ballad.  I think where this comes from is a universal place.  Whenever a relationship ends, there’s at least some part of ourselves that questions either our own participation or even complicity in the deterioration.  I think there’s at least one moment when we ask ourselves what we did wrong, or what we could have done better to prevent it from happening.  I think for Anthony Kiedis, nothing forces him to be more introspective and self-reflective than being with a woman.  There’s something hauntingly familiar here.

What would have been the album’s fourth ballad “Soul to Squeeze” was actually released as a single in 1993, which lends itself to the theory that the song was supposed to be on the album.  Much in the same vain as “Under the Bridge”, this song deals with self-improvement (an idea that arose from Kiedis fight to get clean), and giving someone the version of yourself that they deserve.  “When I get my piece of mind, I’m gonna give you some of my good time” is a promise to do such a thing; it’s telling someone that they are so important to you that once you get yourself figured out and put back together, they’ll be the first person to witness the new and improved version.  Beyond being a promise, it’s a thank you also.  It’s saying thanks for putting up with the bad times, the bad me, and because of that, and in spite of who I was, now, now you’re going to get the me you deserved in the first place.

But we’re all works in progress; there’s always something to better about oneself, and there’s always things to learn.  In 1991, the Chili Peppers learned to not only express themselves much better musically, but they also learned how to express themselves as human beings, and not as oversexed caricature of themselves.  The key to this was writing about their real life experiences.  It was this revolution that allow them to have the successful career that they’ve had, and it’s no surprise that it was the first album with ballads on it that served as the springboard to their future success.  The ballads on the album serve to balance it out and make the album more whole and complete.  Without them Blood Sugar is merely a cool album, with them the album becomes their magnum opus.  The ballads don’t succeed unless they come from a real place wrought with actual sadness and heartache, and that’s been the key to the success of all their subsequent ballads; we always know that Kiedis is confessing a part of his soul in these songs.  Being greater than the sum of its parts, what Blood Sugar Sex Magik tells us is that sometimes you just have to be real.           

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